An undocumented transgender activist challenged the Obama administration's immigration policy and caused a stir in the media when she interrupted the president earlier this week, calling to end the deportation and detainment of LGBTQ undocumented immigrants across the US.
At a White House event honoring LGBT Pride Month, Jennicet Gutiérrez shouted "President Obama, release all LGBTQ immigrants from detention and stop all deportations." Obama was not having any of it and demanded that she be escorted from the White House.
"You know what? It's not respectful when you get invited to somebody. You're not going to get a good response from me by interrupting me like this. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. … Shame on you, you shouldn't be doing this," the President said as the crowd cheered him on and booed the activist out. "As a general rule I am just fine with a few hecklers. But not when I'm up here in the house," he said.
Gutiérrez, who is originally from Mexico, expressed her disappointment in a Washington Blade op-ed post published on Thursday.
"I spoke out because our issues and struggles can no longer be ignored," Gutiérrez wrote. "There is no pride in how LGBTQ immigrants are treated in this country and there can be no celebration with an administration that has the ability to keep us detained and in danger or release us to freedom."
Gutiérrez stressed that even though she is undocumented, she was willing to take risk of "giving the voice to my community that don't have that voice," she said in an interview with Democracy Now.
While several media outlets described the scene as Obama "shutting down" Gutiérrez, the heckler's comments raised awareness of the abuse LGBTQ immigrants often report during confinement, including sexual assault, denial of medical care, subjection to solitary confinement, and discrimination because of their identity. LGBTQ immigrants are 15 times more likely than other detainees to be sexually assaulted while in confinement.
Since 2007, around 200 allegations of sexual abuse that took place within immigration detention facilities across the US were reported to government officials, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Texas, California, and Arizona came in with the highest number of allegations.
In 2013, the Center for American Progress released a report noting that many facilities often place LGBT detainees in solitary confinement in an attempt to shield them from the rest of the population. The report emphasized that across the nation solitary confinement is enforced as "protective custody." When the Department of Homeland Security implemented the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003, protections for LGBTQ detainees were not including until 2012, adding policies that allow immigrants to be detained based on their gender identity.
There have been multiple cases where transgender women were locked up in male detention facilities. In one case, a transgender woman Bamby Salcedo, who came to the US to flee persecution in Mexico, was locked up in an immigration detention facility while waiting for her asylum claim to be reviewed. Salcedo reported that she was placed in a male unit, where she was assaulted and forced to shower alongside several men.
Another case of discrimination that received critical attention involved transgender woman Marichuy Leal Gamino, who was detained in Arizona. Gamino reported that she was subjected to abuse and bullying. When she reported the incidents to on-duty detention center guards, she was allegedly told to "deal with it."
The fight concerning the treatment of LGBTQ immigrants and the Obama administration stems back to 2009. Since then, detaining undocumented immigrants has become a bustling business. In 2009, Congress established a policy requiring the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to detain a minimum number of immigrants each day. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detains at least 34,000 immigrants per day to meet the quota enforced by Congress, also known as the "detention-bed mandate." Private prison companies are paid per bed.
Gutiérrez said she finds the president's reaction to her statements regarding LGBTQ immigrants "heartbreaking."
"It is heartbreaking to see how raising these issues were received by the president and by those in attendance. In the tradition of how Pride started, I interrupted his speech because it is time for our issues and struggles to be heard," she wrote in Thursday's op-ed. "I stood for what is right. Instead of silencing our voices, President Obama can also stand and do the right thing for our immigrant LGBTQ community."